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Entries in Plain Clothes [1988] (1)

Wednesday
Aug032011

Plain Clothes (1988)

The Anatomy of Chemistry

I don't know if it was failed-hippie guilt, drug-tainted water in the 60s, or something else entirely--but there were sure a lot of body-switch/undercover-cop/time-travel movies in the 1980s. On the surface, these three sub-genres might not look like they have anything in common. But many of them were about adults who, through circumstance or necessity, tried to recapture their youth by actually returning to it.

In movies like 18 Again, Vice-Versa, and Like Father, Like Son, adult men switched places with their kids and had their minds blown by the pseudo-punk debauchery of Regan-era public school cafeterias (Big stood out, I think, because of its age-reversing twist on the formula; while The Two Coreys' Dream a Little Dream was dismissed--rightfully so--as pseudo-grown-up profundity spewed by shit-for-brains kids).

Time-travel nostalgia romps like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married exploited the comic potential in their premises, but also shook things up with elements of sci-fi and bleak, middle-aged regret, respectively. The protagonists actually traveled back in time to the 1950s and experienced high school through the "I know now what I didn't know then" lens. Both movies cheat in that Peggy Sue dreamed her whole adventure, and teenager Marty McFly had the adventure that his older friend Doc Brown was supposed to have embarked on.

The hybrid of both these kinds of films was the undercover-cop-in-high-school story. Popularized in the TV show 21 Jump Street and brought to the big screen in Hiding Out and Plain Clothes, they played up the adults-posing-as-kids angle in a contemporary setting and stripped out the sci-fi elements. Of these, I think the best and the worst is Plain Clothes, a movie whose lead actor fascinates with an anti-charisma that allows the movie to stay afloat on a sea of gooey cheese.

Arliss Howard stars as Nick Dunbar, a young cop who lands his department's every case involving children--even though he vehemently hates kids. When his teenage brother, Matt (Loren Dean), is framed for stabbing a teacher to death at school, Nick goes undercover to prove his innocence. Complicating matters is his suspension from the force for punching a superior officer; Nick enlists the help of his partner, Ed (Seymour Cassle), who poses as his father during the sting.

No points for guessing that Nick runs afoul of the school bully (Peter Dobson), or falls in love with one of his teachers (Suzy Amis). Screenwriter Scott Frank hits all the mile-markers (except for the wacky 80s wardrobe montage). But I was surprised at how much more there is going on here besides window dressing. Plain Clothes' loftier plot points struggle against cheap gags about youth culture, and the result is a compelling mess.

Let's start with Howard. In 1988, he was thirty-four years old, playing a twenty-four-year-old cop posing as a seventeen-year-old student (maybe this is a time-travel movie after all). Intentional or not, Howard sticks out like a sore thumb among his younger co-stars, many of whom were also out of high school--but not so far out of it that they looked like faculty members. The actor's age really helps inform his performance. Howard plays grumpy detachment well, and also gives the impression that Nick is a pretty cool, nice guy normally; we just happen to be catching him during the worst two weeks of his life.

His get-me-out-of-here demeanor allows him to ignore the day-to-day rigors of high school and focus on his case, which turns out to be a deliciously sticky cover-up involving a teachers' pension scam, blackmail, and a decades-old love triangle. Occasional distractions like the bully and his posse or the comely English teacher draw him back to the reality of his situation, but Plain Clothes is first and foremost a murder mystery. I love the way Frank and director Martha Coolidge tie every element of their story together and reveal the sordid, underground history of the school layer by layer.

Adding legitimacy to the film (or maybe just amping up the freak factor) is a great cast that includes Harry Shearer, Robert Stack, Diane Ladd, and George Wendt. For the most part, they go against type; Wendt drifts the furthest away from his pop persona by playing a puzzled shop-teacher/guidance counselor named Chet Butler. On the surface, it looks like these actors are slumming it in a hip-with-the-kids teen comedy (they way celebrities might drop in on an episode of iCarly or anything having to do with young vampires in love today). But as the movie goes on, we see that these lame adults have much more going on than anyone expected.

(Speaking of surprises, Alexandra Powers is great as Dawn-Marie, the bully's popular girlfriend. Rather than being a superficial secondary love interest for Nick, she's a smart and vulnerable girl looking for something more than the meat-heads in her class. It's a cute twist that further elevates the material over other movies of its kind).

While the writing in Plain Clothes is its second-biggest strength (next to Howard's performance), it is also where the movie comes up short. Much of the adult dialogue and the murder plot are handled really well, but the high school scenes are plagued by pandering teen-centric dialogue that belongs in Head of the Class. From comments by air-headed stoner kids to wacky passing-period announcements over the PA system, the movie is frequently knocked off kilter by scene fragments that are, frankly, embarrassing to watch. I can't be too hard on Plain Clothes, though, because it introduced me to the poetry of E.E. Cummings at the tender age of ten; Nick reads his metaphoric opus, "She Being Brand" as an English assignment, in a scene that manages to be corny and sexy at the same time.

I don't know if the 80s life-switch-movie phenomenon meant anything, or if it was just a trend that chased its own tail until the dollars stopped trickling in. We got more than our fair share of culture-clashing, values-warping misunderstandings, many of which just weren't that great. Plain Clothes stands out as being the most overlooked and under appreciated of these. Maybe it was seen as a no-brand knock-off; maybe it was just late to the party. Whatever the case, I think its wit, plot, and ability to at once despise and tinker with the shortcomings of its genre make it the best example of the undercover-high-school-cop story. I'd love to see a re-make that ditches the bad parts and improves on the good ones, but that'll have to wait in line behind next year's 21 Jump Street remake--which I doubt will be written about in twenty years.